Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Republocrat: Chapter 4 "Living Life to the Max"

And so the Republocrat series grinds on. Hopefully my dwindling band of readers will indulge me a while longer. Only two chapters to go!

If Marx's Das Kapital was an attempt to explain the rise of European capitalism by materialist causes, then Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, published in 1905, was an attempt to explain it by taking into account the spiritual dimension. In this seminal work the dour German sociologist posited a corresponding connection between the values of Genevan Calvinism and the values and ways of doing things that birthed modern free market capitalism.

I think there's some truth to Weber's groundbreaking thesis, but Carl Trueman wants to demonstrate that Weber's conclusions were faulty and in some ways have been overtaken by events. To recapitulate just one of Trueman's problems with Max: his "Protestant ethic" can't account for the economic rise of the Asian tigers (Japan, Korea and China). Yes, it's true that Calvinism seems to be on the rise in China (see here) and the second-largest Presbyterian Church in the world is in South Korea, but at most this is merely an incidental connection and not the necessary connection that Weber's disciples would want to prove. Trueman has much more to say on Herr Weber. But why is this even important to a discussion of conservative Christianity and capitalism?

Despite the problems with Weber's thesis, it has proved somewhat attractive to American Christians keen to see a close relationship between their theology and a central tenet of the American way—the capitalist free market. The connection is useful: if there is a link between Christian truth and capitalist prosperity, then capitalism itself becomes the God-given way in which society should be organized; and it presumably accounts for the fact that, in the USA, a term such as socialism is so often seen as antithetical to Christianity, in a way that would have been historically unthinkable in a place such as Great Britain, where Christians played a key role in the early history of both the Labour Party and the trade-union movement. Indeed, while writing this book I had the privilege of spending a day addressing evangelical pastors in Wales, men who labor in poor, former mining areas. They were incredulous that any evangelical Christian would ever vote for a right-of-center capitalist party; such is the contextual nature of the relationship of theology and politics. (p. 65)

If Weber's hugely influential thesis has holes then it becomes harder to view free market capitalism as an absolute good -- the be all and end all of civilization. Perhaps "Christian socialism" is no more an oxymoron than "Christian capitalism"? History is replete with examples of the folly of annointing any ideological system as the end-point of historical development. Trueman cites Medieval feudalism as one prominent example that now sits beneath the dustbin of history. Capitalism is indeed the best system of economic organization we have right now -- a point the book makes more than once -- but that doesn't mean its future hegemony is inevitable, or even desirable.

But why isn't that outcome desirable? Doesn't economic freedom translate into other freedoms, such as religous freedom? Not exactly. That case too becomes harder to make in light of recent history. The author points to the example of China where capitalism is coexisting quite comfortably with a totalitarian political system in which religious freedom is still in short supply. Closer to home we often hear free marketeers extolling the "morality of the market" as if leaving things in the hands of private actors out to make a profit is always a positive virtue. We heard this a lot in the recent debates over healthcare. Since this is a hobbyhorse I love to ride I'll throw this out there.

To listen to some Christians talk, one would think that evil is essentially the preserve of Washington, and that CEOs of private companies have nothing but our interests at heart; or, at least, are forced into dealing fairly with us because they cannot buck the forces of the market. Thus government health care is bad because it will be rationed by bureaucrats; private health care is good because rationing does not exist. Of course, this argument assumes that all insurance companies have unlimited capital at their disposal and employees who would never, ever deny a claim for vital treatment. (p. 68)

In the final pages of chapter 4; believers who unconsciously assume Christianity and capitalism go together like apple pie and ice cream are encouraged to examine the kind of "behavior, outlook, and ethics" that market capitalism fosters. If they do, they may find attitudes that are at home in the capitalistic kingdom of man, but have no place in the kingdom of God. One such is disatisfaction. Contentment is a cardinal Christian virtue, but here it's opposite is one of the fuels that drive the engine of consumerism. I like buying new things. I bet you like buying new things. There's nothing wrong with buying new things, but let's be self-aware enough to realize when our baser impulses are being pandered to. Trueman offers other such examples of ways contemporary capitalism actually undermines traditional, Christian values. In short -- not everything about capitalism is consistent with a Christian worldview, or even with conservatism as traditionally understood.

He goes on to argue that economic libertarianism "inexorably" leads to moral libertarianism -- where "free-market logic" is applied to moral issues. Here he could be accused of indulging in a bit of historical determinism of his own. Nevertheless his larger point is spot on: without a moral underpinning capitalism is just as dangerous to human flourishing as socialism. The "morality of the market" isn't moral and surrendering economic life to the whim of Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is a fatalistic cop-out. There are times when creating a more just society means challenging laissez-faire economic assumptions.

Finally, in reflecting on this subject I thought of the many parables that describe the kingdom of heaven. You know -- the ones that begin, "the kingdom of heaven is like. . ." It's surprising how many of them involve money. They teach us that disciples of Jesus are subjects of a kingdom in which the world's values are turned upside down. An economic system based on individual rights, competition and the profit motive may be the best way to create the highest standard of living for the most people, but those values are at odds with the values of the kingdom -- where the last will be first, and the worker who toiled one hour is paid the same as the worker who toiled all day.

Coming next: fuzzy logic and the power of stories.

Quotes from Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010)

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